As long as so much of what we see is unnecessary suffering, we cannot be content with the world as we find it. Of course we should keep Gray’s cautions well in mind. The catastrophic revolutionary ideologies of the past were ersatz religions. Scientific utopias and promises to transform the human condition deserve the deepest suspicion. Moral and political progress are always subject to reversal. Humans are animals; human nature is riven with conflicts; reason is a frail reed. But even if we can’t set the cosmos right, we can’t leave our corner of it the way it is. Whatever else may be an illusion, other people’s suffering is not.
I read Scialabba’s book What Are Intellectuals Good For? early last year. I only remembered the title because I looked it up in my Goodreads history. I had totally forgotten it was still on my shelf until I just went and checked a moment ago. Glancing through it, I don’t see any of my telltale marks in red pen for calling attention to thought-provoking passages. In other words, the book didn’t leave much of a lasting impression on me. Lionel Trilling once famously described mid-20th-century conservatism as a collection of “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas;” my vague memory is that Scialabba’s essays were full of potentially interesting ideas which were offset by the irritating rhetorical gestures toward a left-wing sensibility.
Granted, that may well say more about me than him, but I felt the same way again after reading this review of John Gray’s latest book, Seven Types of Atheism. After a fair and respectful consideration of Gray’s argument, the concluding paragraph above just feels perfunctory. Having acknowledged Gray’s point that much of left-wing politics is just crusading Christianity in disguise for people who pride themselves on feeling superior to religious believers, Scialabba simply turns around and reasserts the same perspective as a moral imperative, as if the ongoing metaphysical earthquake which undermined much of the confidence in the old Christian worldview never happened. I’m sure that’s good enough for the choir, but why are the rest of us supposed to be convinced? This is just a refusal to even face the challenge squarely, preferring the comfort of platitudes.
As it happens, I think Scialabba is actually correct, even if the sentiment is shallow. I agree with Anthony Kronman that the tragedy of the human condition is our self-contradictory nature, our inability to ever stop trying to usurp God’s throne and bring every aspect of human existence under our conscious, willed control. The apple cannot be uneaten. Pandora’s jar cannot be resealed. Westerners as a rule cannot stop seeking to abolish the entire painful spectrum between discomfort and agony, even if we understand on a cerebral level that a life without pain would actually be undesirable, not to mention impossible. But Jordan Peterson, to name one contemporary example, also names suffering as the undeniable fact about human experience, the inescapable truth he salvaged from his own period of extreme Cartesian doubt, and yet he has derived a much different (and more interesting) stance toward politics and values than the generic democratic-socialist outlook that Scialabba seems to take as a given. The entire point of Gray’s book is that there is more than one way to disbelieve in God. Likewise, there is more than one coherent perspective to take on the brute facts of existence.